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Business as Usual: Why ‘the Handshake’ Has Had Little Impact on the Fortunes of the Luo People

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“How can Raila be happy with the Handshake when it has does nothing for us in Nyanza?” posed the women. “At least during the coalition government, the fish factories were revived. The nusu mkate [half bread] government delivered some economic dividends. The recent pact seems to have no economic agenda for the urban poor who bore the brunt of police brutality in the last presidential elections.

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Business as Usual: Why ‘the Handshake’ Has Had Little Impact on the Fortunes of the Luo People
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“The Luo community is happy Raila is back at the centre,” intoned our physician friend, Dr Sam Owino. In the last twelve months, since the surprise political rapprochement between President Uhuru Kenyatta and his antagonist-in-chief Raila Odinga, the talk about town has been how the Luos are now reaping from the so-called “Handshake”. “We’re no longer the political bogeyman of the state,” reiterated the Nairobi physician. “It has never been fun carrying the tag and burden of oppositional politics in the country for all these years.”

After the Handshake, which had been preceded by a piercing palpable tension across the country, Raila, the leader of the nascent opposition outfit, the National Super Alliance (NASA), broke ranks with his colleagues Kalonzo Musyoka, Musalia Mudavadi and Moses Wetangula to sue for peace with President Uhuru of the Jubilee Party. “Koro wan eisirkal,” (We’re now in government…we’re no longer in the opposition) said Raila soon after the Handshake, a statement that was reiterated by President Uhuru. A visitor to the country soon after the combustible double elections would never appreciate and digest fully the import of that statement.

No community in Kenya has borne the brunt of the state’s political malice and economic sabotage than the Luo people, observed Oduor. “The Luo people have suffered the greatest political harassment and assassinations in this country, starting with Argwings Kodhek, who was killed in January 1969…”

To a section of the Luo community, “being in the political cold,” is a phrase they identify with all too well. “The Luo people have been in the opposition effectively since 1966, when President Jomo Kenyatta shunted his Vice President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga,” said Bernard Oduor, an advertising and marketing manager of a Nairobi-based publishing company. “Let another community shoulder the weight of being always on the receiving end of the state’s anti-development brutal policies and constant violence.”

No community in Kenya has borne the brunt of the state’s political malice and economic sabotage than the Luo people, observed Oduor. “The Luo people have suffered the greatest political harassment and assassinations in this country, starting with Argwings Kodhek, who was killed in January 1969. Six months later, Tom Mboya, perhaps the greatest of Luo leaders, was killed, possibly by the same forces that took care of Kodhek through a freak accident.”

That same year, 1969, the government detained Jaramogi with other Luo leaders for standing up to Jomo and the Kiambu Mafia’s imperial tendencies, recalls Oduor. “It was a cruel testament of the political harassment by the successive government of Presidents Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi that by the time multipartyism was being re-introduced in Kenya, in 1991, Jaramogi was already frail, old and sickly.” A multiparty election was held in December 1992 and Jaramogi was elected the MP for Bondo. A year later, on January 20, 1994, Jaramogi was dead.

From 1963 to 1978, Kenya had been a de facto one party state. But in 1982, just before the attempted military putsch led by Kenya Air Force officers on August 1, 1982, the country become a de jure one party state, after Jaramogi and George Anyona, the firebrand politician from Gusiiland, walked to the registrar’s office at Sheria House and demanded to register their party – the Kenya African Socialist Alliance (KASA). Feeling threatened by the duo’s courage and determination to register a new party, one afternoon Moi summoned MPs and asked them to change the constitution to make Kenya a one-party dictatorship.

“Even though Robert Ouko, the brilliant foreign affairs minister, worked for the Kanu government and was a loyal lieutenant of Moi, they still got rid of him, proving that no Luo politician was good enough for a Kenyan government,” opined Oduor. “It has been a tortuous long journey and it’s time we enjoyed some respite.”

Broken promises    

In the aftermath of a contested August 8, 2017 election and the subsequent boycott of the second presidential election on October 26, 2017, the state visited violence on members of the Luo community in Nairobi County, and especially in the lakeside town of Kisumu, which is perceived as a base for the Luo community. In both cities, hordes of youth from the ghetto suburbs of Kibera and Mathare in Nairobi and Nyalenda and Kondele in Kisumu rioted, protesting the gross mismanagement of the election procedure. Many of the youth who were felled by the bullets of state security personnel were Luo youth.

“The Handshake was meant to cool the political temperatures, which were threatening to soar overboard,” said Steve Ochuodho, a researcher in African history. “It was to allow for the country to go back to its normal self and stabilise, with the aim of the country hopefully taking off economically. True, the country stabilised, but nothing much has really happened thereafter.”

The promises that Raila made after the Handshake, ostensibly to the Luo community, are nothing new, explained Ochuodho: “They are the same promises Raila has been making since 1997 when he merged his fledging National Democratic Party (NDP) with Kanu. Since then, it is the Odinga family that has continually grown rich at the expense of the Luo people…”

“Contrary to popular belief being peddled by ‘Raila evangelists’ that the Luos are now in government, nothing could be further from the truth,” noted Ochuodho. “Luos aren’t in the government and more than ever before, they are languishing in poverty. I fret every time I hear that Luos are now enjoying and I ask: Which Luos are these? If there are any Luos in government, they must be Raila’s friends or his relatives from Siaya County,” added the researcher.

The promises that Raila made after the Handshake, ostensibly to the Luo community, are nothing new, explained Ochuodho: “They are the same promises Raila has been making since 1997 when he merged his fledging National Democratic Party (NDP) with Kanu. Since then, it is the Odinga family that has continually grown rich at the expense of the Luo people. Because of these Raila Handshakes, the Luo people are treated as the Odinga family’s captives to be traded with politically any time the family wants to reap financially from the existing government.”

“There are no deliverables, neither are there fruits to be harvested from the Handshake,” said Ochuodho. “All what we are hearing is what it intends to do, It is classic political brinkmanship.” All what the Handshake has done is to entrench even further retrogressive leadership in Luo Nyanza.”

“Through the Handshake, Cyprian Awiti, the Homa Bay governor, came back. Every Luo voter, wherever he or she was, knew Awiti was never going to survive a by-election if the court upheld the petition.” Former Kasipul MP Oyugi Magwanga had successively petitioned both the High Court and the Court of Appeal, only for the Supreme Court to uphold his election victory in August 8, 2017.

With the coming by-election in Ugenya, Raila has already told the voters ahead of time that they should not let him down – that they should return Christopher Karan, who the court found had engaged in electoral malpractices, pointed out Ochuodho. “Kik ukuod wiya jothurwa, (Please don’t embarrass me), Raila told the voters when he went there recently. Even though Karan is unpopular, the ODM party still gave him a direct ticket.” David Ouma Ochieng, Karan’s chief opponent and the immediate former MP, whose petition was heard by the High Court in Kisumu, will be mounting a soap box when the by-election comes up on April 5, 2019.

“The Luo people were not ready for the Handshake,” said Mike Osilo, an information technologist in Nairobi. “Because they were ready for war. The state’s unceasing violence against the Luo people had created in them an appetite for unstoppable bloodshed. They were prepared to go the whole hog.”

Osilo said this hardline stance had been fomented during the October 26 fresh presidential elections when elections did not take place in four Nyanza counties (Homa Bay, Kisumu, Migori and Siaya). “For the first in the history of post-independent Kenya, a people had successively held back a state with all its militarised violence. From then on, the people decided there was no turning back and then the Handshake happened.”

“The Building the Bridges Initiative, the result of the Handshake, has now become a parastatal,” quipped Osilo. “It was meant to give jobs to the favoured boys. Everything is business as usual. If the Handshake and its appendage, the BBI, was serious in developing Luo Nyanza, it would have started by reviving Ahero Irrigation Scheme and the Chemilil, Muhoroni and Sony sugar factories…”

Osilo said Raila’s Handshake compensation promise to the families that lost their relatives in the last election, especially in Kisumu, has remained just that: a promise. “Immediately after the Handshake, Raila went down to Kondele, the site of the greatest state violence visited on a people. Scores of youth were killed by the GSU and Raila that night told their families that the government was going to compensate them. The people were in a very uncompromising mood, but Raila managed to calm them down. Twelve months later, there is nothing to show for that promise.”

“The Building the Bridges Initiative, the result of the Handshake, has now become a parastatal,” quipped Osilo. “It was meant to give jobs to the favoured boys. Everything is business as usual. If the Handshake and its appendage, the BBI, was serious in developing Luo Nyanza, it would have started by reviving Ahero Irrigation Scheme and the Chemilil, Muhoroni and Sony sugar factories, for instance. When I hear people talking of deliverables through the Handshake, I wonder where these deliverables are to be found.”

“Let it be on record: The much talked about dredging vessel brought to Lake Victoria actually preceded the Handshake – Raila just hijacked its launching on January 19, 2019. Likewise, the ongoing resuscitation of the Kenya Breweries Limited plant in Kisumu is not a product of the Handshake: KBL had already given the farmers the go-ahead [before the Handshake took place] to start sowing sorghum. As for the ferry transport on Lake Victoria, the World Bank had already mapped the lake for its Lake Victoria Transport programme as far back as 2016,” noted Osilo.

“One year down the line, the Handshake had become a forum for exchanging insults,” said Ochuodho. “Those who used Ruto to thrust a poisoned dagger into Raila’s back are the same people who are now are using him to stab Ruto in the back.” In Ochuodho’s view, “Canaan had become a mirage”, whose climax was deporting Joshua Miguna Miguna, a deportation Ochuodho squarely blames Raila for. “I can tell you this, the Handshake will not last – it will soon collapse, and after it collapses, Raila will walk away in shame, this time accompanied by old age.” The referendum which is supposed to be the outcome of BBI is “already poisoned,” summed up Ochuodho.

No bridges built in Kisumu

In the lakeshore Kisumu city, the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI)’s first anniversary went unnoticed. The residents we interviewed were resolute that the Handshake was still a puzzle and shrouded in mystery. Hence, the rapprochement means different things to different people. One year after it took place, it still dominates public discussions, eliciting more questions than answers.

“Did the Handshake simply substitute Luo-Kalenjin elite rivalry with the Luo-Gikuyu elite one? Are the Gikuyu elite now holding the ring between Raila Odinga and William Ruto? Who really is our enemy?” posed a middle-aged man at the Bunge la Wananchi (Peoples’ Parliament) meeting taking place under the huge canopy of an oak-like tree off the Kisumu-Kampala Road where real politik is earnestly and hotly debated during the lunch break.

For some of Kisumu’s residents, what the Handshake has succeeded in doing is resuscitate puzzling questions that revolve around Raila’s political deftness and survival instincts. “Raila’s an avid football fan and right now he has the ball…will he, this time just get away with a high ball against William Ruto? If he does, will Ruto, stand between him and the goal? Or, will he this time finally score the winning goal, now that the referees of the presidential tourney seems to be on his side?” mused Willis Ochieng. “Ruto is not a leader, he’s a dealer. There’s no doubt he would be bad for the country – he’s unsympathetic to the feelings of the people. But that aside, the big question that has been disturbing us is, just what is in it for the rest of the spectator crowd?

At the Kondele highway interchange, we met Shem Matiku, a cobbler who plies his trade below the interchange. Kondele was the site of fierce battles between the battle-hardened youth of the sprawling ghetto, who fought back the paramilitary police, the General Service Unit (GSU) in August 2017 after the first presidential election. Matiku had since put that terrible period behind him: “I’m an optimist. I believe Raila has the best interests of his people. Uhuru, unlike Ruto is not a hardliner, he could be a hard bargainer, but a bargainer nonetheless and that is why he made a pact with Raila.”

“Ruto’s too forceful,” reflected Matiku, in between shining his customers’ shoes. “It is as if he’s forcing the people to elect him: it’s either his way or the highway.” The cobbler observed that until Raila went into government, development in Luo Nyanza was lopsided. “Now we’re beginning to see some development our way: Kenya Breweries has reopened its factory and construction of roads has commenced and corruption is being fought…you know what…Raila helped Uhuru see state corruption in the government. Let the spirit of the Handshake flow. We support it one hundred percent.”

However, George Collins Owour, an astute civil society leader, is utterly unimpressed by the Handshake. “We wanted to put up a monument in honour of the victims of political violence, preferably at the Jomo Kenyatta sports ground and have Raila Odinga launch it,” said Owuor. “A monument that would tell the story of the victims of political violence, and a constant reminder to the youth of the dangers of political violence, while at the same time establishing a link between poverty and politics. The monument had been also intended to occupy a space for discussing political violence and how it distracts and destroys lives of many unhinged youth. It would remind them of the dangers of disorganised and unhelpful protests and thereby discourage them from participating in them.”

“The youth are always ready to participate in protests, but where are they now? Some were killed and maimed, others were arrested and falsely accused of robbery with violence and are now languishing in jail, having been forgotten,” lamented Owuor. “The irony is that the county government of Kisumu, while rejecting our proposal, was quick to fast track its own plans of erecting a statue in memory of Jaramogi Odinga.”

“Jaramogi initiated the Luo Thrift and Trading Corporation, which inspired small- and medium-scale business initiatives in Nyanza region. As a social democrat, Jaramogi also led popular grassroots movements for political and cultural awareness in the whole of East Africa,” said Prof Anyang Nyong’o, the Governor of Kisumu.

While the contribution of Jaramogi among the Luo community is in no doubt and cannot be contested, whether in Luo Nyanza or, indeed the entire country, to seemingly bury the history of the youth, who have paid with their lives for fighting for democracy, is callous and deceitful, bemoaned Owuor. “Let us not kid ourselves – the Handshake has not worked for the youth: the boda bodas (motor cycle riders), street vendors and hawkers are still suffering – some lost their lives, others are today living with live bullets in their bodies. Nobody talks about their plight and President Uhuru and Raila have largely forgotten about them.”

Owuor said it would be pretentious to build bridges when the youth have been neglected. “The youth had been promised Canaan. Instead what they got was a Handshake between two political bigwigs who cared for nothing as far as the youth were concerned. Because of this, Raila cannot hold a rally in Kisumu – the youth are still very embittered.”

The divided opinion of Kisumu residents suggested that the Handshake was a self-preservation elite pact. Raila’s core political constituents, still hurting and nursing post-presidential election injuries and injustices since 2007, and suffering biting hunger pangs in these economic hard times, have been forced, yet again, to defer their quest for justice and reparations.

The civil society leader said BBI was a reward for the boys. “I’ve been seeing them in seminars taking selfies, and we’ve yet to see a preliminary report of its findings. If BBI was working, we wouldn’t have heard the kind of political rhetoric and bitterness we witnessed at the Kirinyaga governors’ conference. Truth be told, BBI has been overtaken by events…stupid…succession politics is the order of the day.”

The divided opinion of Kisumu residents suggested that the Handshake was a self-preservation elite pact. Raila’s core political constituents, still hurting and nursing post-presidential election injuries and injustices since 2007, and suffering biting hunger pangs in these economic hard times, have been forced, yet again, to defer their quest for justice and reparations.

Hard feelings, brought about by past betrayals by a cross-section of the Gikuyu elite, the construction of a few road projects, the appointment of a few sons-of-the-soil into public offices, and some subsidy for the beleaguered sugarcane farmers to numb the Luo people’s raw wounds, as they cheat them again, are still very real.

The mixed reactions also revealed a wide gap between the politics that the Handshake enabled at the county level – where incompetent, corrupt, and nepotistic leadership is the name of the game, and where Raila’s hard core support base yearns for a clean and competent government that can deliver healthcare, food, and clean water – and national-level politics, where the very same Raila has been baying for the blood of some of the corrupt, inept and ethnic chauvinists in charge of various ministries.

Drunk with power by proxy

At the county level, the Handshake, it seems, is politics as usual. It starkly reminds Kenyans, especially residents of Kisumu, Homa Bay, Siaya and Migori counties, that their political fortunes or misfortunes since independence have risen or fallen hard with every elite pact, and the ever changing political coalitions, mostly beholden to expedient political interests.

“This time, it’s a call for a big sacrifice from Raila’s political ambitions, an exchange for the quest for justice for the electoral malpractices and victims of police violence, for some ‘development’,” and ultimately, Raila’s quest for the presidency or premiership,” posited Martin Augo.

If Raila’s core support base yearns for competent and accountable county governments is unmistakable, then the Handshake seemed to make such demands only at the national government level, points out Willis Ochieng, a tenderprenuer who has worked in several county governments in western Kenya. “The Handshake,” said Ochieng, “ilituliza joto la siasa, lakini wananchi bado hawana huduma. Ma MCAs, wamesahau hata watu wao kabisa. Wanapigana bunge kujaza mifuko yao tu.” (The Handshake cooled the political temperatures, but the people still lack services. These MCAs have completely ignored the people who elected them. They fight in their respective assemblies to fill their pockets).

In several social media platforms, Kenyans envy the counties that have made remarkable progress and built infrastructure that makes county residents proud, such as the stadium in Kakamega County, the hospital in Makueni County, and the level-six hospital in Kisii County. But hardly anyone envies a hyacinth-free Siaya or Homa Bay or a world class football stadium in Migori. Raila’s strongholds, it seems, have nothing to show for the six years of the devolved government experiment.

Drunk with power by proxy, the party, it seems, is wasting its energy, distracted by chasing “the rat that is escaping a burning house” rather than putting out the fire that is consuming the house. ODM, it seems, reserves its harshest punishment for minnows, inconsequential transgressions and comical infractions, rather than the life-and-death violations of the men-only governors of its core ODM political base…

One hears only an occasional gnashing of clerical teeth, a dissatisfied Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK) Bishop James Ochiel of Southern Nyanza diocese, but hardly a gnashing of the second liberators’ teeth, the custodians of the spirit of the struggle against bad government, among them the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) party’s honchos.

Drunk with power by proxy, the party, it seems, is wasting its energy, distracted by chasing “the rat that is escaping a burning house” rather than putting out the fire that is consuming the house. ODM, it seems, reserves its harshest punishment for minnows, inconsequential transgressions and comical infractions, rather than the life-and-death violations of the men-only governors of its core ODM political base – men who, except for Prof Nyong’o, are seen as corrupt, nepotistic, incapable and fantastically generous with cash hand-outs, often given to a few hangers-on as they ride out a lacklustre two-term tenure at the helm of the Homa Bay, Siaya, and Migori county governments.

The ODM mandarins and Raila evangelists would rather they shadow and listen to the double meaning of Aisha Jumwa’s supposed disloyalty and sexed-up taunts of kiuno kiuno (hip gyrations) or “Kanugo e teko,” in Kisumu-speak. Aisha Jumwa’s flaunting of her sex appeal, which seems to gain the ire of the mostly male ODM party honchos, might look comical, but it is a timely reminder than the ODM party leaders may have to work extra hard to keep women’s support. Many women who support the party are hurting and hard done by tough economic times.

No justice for victims of political violence

In Kisumu’s Obunga slum, we sat down with two women outside the aptly named New Obunga Pub, who out of fear of reprisal from ODM Kisumu party hacks requested anonymity. “Risasi oweyo goyo udi wa. tear gas orumo,” (The bullets have stopped hitting our houses and the tear gas is no more), said the lady with a spec of gray hair. “The only respite we have now is that people are no longer running helter-skelter…we, at least, can move freely,” intoned her younger friend. “But there is nothing much else: there is no business, no income, we can’t buy anything because we don’t have the money. You just hustle as hard and kama kawaida (as usual nothing has changed). There is no work for the youth.”

Many, especially women, are still hurting and carrying the scars of the political violence of the 2017 presidential elections. They are also deeply impacted by the tough economic times. “Women were raped. Some lost family members, and although some of the victims formed a support group and were given food at the Kenyatta sports ground, they didn’t get any other help,” said one of the women, a human rights defender, who was hunched over an old model laptop plastered with stickers.

Justice for the victims of political violence has remained a sticky sour question. Unlike their counterparts from Central Kenya, many of the internally displaced people (IDPs) or returnees who came back to Kisumu and neighbouring counties are still waiting for the token financial compensation for the loss of land or livelihood.

The majority of the victims of the recent political violence feel let down by their elected leaders. At best, the elected leaders have been opportunistic and at worst indifferent to the plight of the victims. Shena Ryan, who works with a youth group that runs a charity for the poor living with HIV on the outskirts of Kisumu city, said, “It’s not enough to pay for the funeral expenses and give hand-outs to the bereaved for cheap publicity. A politician’s still a politician, always looking out for cheap glorification.”

Ryan reckons that the Handshake had restored stability, no doubt, because “Kikuyus could now again trade freely in Kibuye. We went to the streets, to protest electoral injustices, and some of us were killed. No one has got justice. They are telling us the OCS Nyalenda will be charged. Until these policemen are charged, it will remain just a narrative.”

Said the social worker, “I wasn’t for the Handshake and now, with the knowledge of hindsight, it would have been better had we not poured into the streets. Until the two buffaloes who shook hands come back to the people, purposefully apologise to the victims of the police violence, that Handshake means nothing. Recently, when the duo visited [to attend Jaramogi Oginga Odinga’s memorial in Bondo], we were told, ‘Do not heckle Jakom. Who’s Jakom?’” The Handshake has returned us into a one-part state; we are all now in the Jubilee Party.”

In place of the elected leaders, a consortium of civic organisations comprising the Kisumu City Residents Voice, the Kondele Justice Centre, the National Informal Sector Alliance and Kisumu Joint Bunge Initiative, among others, have stepped in to pursue justice for at least 67 people who incurred various bodily injuries, both in the run-up to and after the 2017 presidential elections.

The consortium has petitioned the office of the Chief Justice of Kenya, asking Justice David Maraga to establish a tribunal to look into how security officers singled out and policed Luo Nyanza region during the last general election, to pursue justice for the victims of police violence, and to recommend the prosecution of the police officers who may be found to have been culpable of violence.

Mixed fortunes

Kisumu residents feel that their elected leaders are also indifferent to their economic plight. “Tich tire” (I’m hard at work) says Governor Prof Anyang’, who valorises the Protestant work ethic. But his constituents, such as Willis Ojwang’, retort, “Tich tire; to kech kecho,” (You are hard at work, but hunger bites sting).

Kisumu is no longer stuck in a socialist-like rut of drab municipal and civil service housing, uniformly dull in a state of disrepair, and the old ubiquitous rickety and dusty Peugeot 404 plying the Kondele-Kondele route that were kept on the narrow and badly maintained roads by the combined genius of the city’s mechanics and take-no-prisoners drivers.

The regional marine transport into the port of Kisumu is as good as dead. And the railway tracks are buried deep in the soil. Yet, the urban poor now cruise through the city’s new road networks and underpasses, four or five passengers in a tuk tuk, (rickshaw-type three-wheeler taxis) or as one or two passengers on a boda boda. Its streets, especially in the CBD, all the way to Kisumu International Airport, are well lit at night.

But the city has not yet turned a corner. Its economy is not yet as dynamic as its demography, especially as it draws in other East Africans, such as the Burundians and more Ugandans, who are hawking consumer goods in search of surplus incomes. More than the Protestant work ethic, Kisumu’s economy is in dire need of structural change, the revival of agricultural sectors and ventures into agribusiness, if only to mitigate the widening gender inequality gap and meet the demands of regional integration.

“How can Raila be happy with the Handshake when it has does nothing for us in Nyanza?” posed the women. “At least during the coalition government, the fish factories were revived. The nusu mkate [half bread] government delivered some economic dividends. The recent pact seems to have no economic agenda for the urban poor who bore the brunt of police brutality in the last presidential elections.”

Although the revival of the KBL Kisumu plant held hope for some, the two women we talked to in Obunga complained that the plant employs people from Nairobi, Uganda, Nyakach, and Machakos, not the residents of Obunga as they had hoped. Worse still, for women who have been left out of the city’s better-paying male dominated boda boda and the car wash businesses, the fish processing companies, which used to employ many women directly and indirectly through trading in mgongo wazi (fish skeletons) is closed. “It was big business for all. But with the coming of the Chinese fish, the companies closed. These companies now use their big freezers and cold rooms to store and redistribute Chinese fish,” said one of the women.

“How can Raila be happy with the Handshake when it has does nothing for us in Nyanza?” posed the women. “At least during the coalition government, the fish factories were revived. The nusu mkate [half bread] government delivered some economic dividends. The recent pact seems to have no economic agenda for the urban poor who bore the brunt of police brutality in the last presidential elections.”

“Prostitution is rife here,” one of the women told us. “If you guys stayed a little longer, you’d see a traffic of women moving up towards Kondele, Gwara-Gwara or Ka-Lorry where sex goes for as little Sh20 per shot. What has the Handshake done for us? It has pushed us into sex slavery,” moaned the woman dejectedly as the sun was setting on Obunga slum.

Youth too have missed the BBI boat. If university students’ campus politics is a good indicator for the shifting political alliance, then Kathy Gitau, the articulate, urbane, and charming vice chairperson of the Maseno University students’ council knows all too well how significant local politics, including campus politics, are intricately tied to the centre.

Clutching a long list of names of students who deserve bursaries this semester, which are due for submission, she agreed that the Handshake, “had cooled down political temperatures …brought political stability, freedom of movement, and good working relationship across ethnic divides, and on campus, bridged the ethnic rift between students”, making it possible for her and team to invoke the spirit of the Handshake to canvass for votes. As a coalition of three women and four men, and as a coalition of a Luo (chairperson), a Kikuyu (vice chairperson), a Luhya (treasurer), a Kisii and Turkana, they had been elected.”

Stated Gitau: “Before the Handshake, it was hard for a Kikuyu or Kalenjin to get elected by the students. Ethnic discrimination against the Kikuyu and Kalenjin was rife among students. ‘Why should we give you a piece of cake here when you have the national cake?’ argued the students. Our competence, individuality, strong gender and ethnic balance swept us into office. All candidates in our coalition, except one, were elected. We won by a landslide,” said Gitau.

Still, Ms Gitau had some reservations. The Handshake, she said, “has bridged the divisions among the ordinary citizens who can now interact freely, but it has also widened the rift among the political class. It has killed the opposition. Raila now has a central role in government because he seems to have edged out Ruto. This could, as well, affect us, pitting us in an endless cycle of disputes and divisions.”

She, however, admitted that she still doesn’t understand what the Handshake is all about. “Is it supposed to end in a referendum? If so, how will we participate in a process whose outcome or end game is unknown or seems predetermined? What is in it for the youth? Be that as it may, the Handshake seems to have shifted the focus away from the Big Four Agenda issues of food, healthcare, housing and industrialisation.”

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Mr Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant and Akoko Akech is a graduate student at the Makerere Institute of Social Research, presently living in Kisumu.

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COVID-19 and the Future of Democracy in Zimbabwe

The current COVID-19 pandemic has shown why pro-democracy movements in Zimbabwe should disentangle themselves from the fallacious promise of neoliberal democracy and the magic of the market. Democratic politics should be about delivering public goods and services, including quality healthcare, not about servicing markets.

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COVID-19 and the Future of Democracy in Zimbabwe
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The world has been teetering on the precipice ever since the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan city in Hubei province, China. Since then, the disease has been classified as a global pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO), leading to countries adopting drastic measures to combat it.

In a majority of countries, state security institutions have been activated and deployed to help enforce the lockdown, and the stay-at-home and social distancing policies. Inasmuch as these strategies are practical measures to combat COVID-19, they have inadvertently created opportunities for authoritarianism. Jared Rodriguez aptly surmises the situation: “The pandemic creates extraordinary circumstances for restricting civil liberties, free speech and human rights while intensifying the possibilities of an emerging authoritarianism.

In countries like Zimbabwe, which are rife with authoritarianism, it seems the pandemic has provided a perfect opportunity to checkmate the ever nagging opposition and civic movement. The strategies adopted so far by the government point only to one goal: achieving unimpeded imperial rule for the incumbent.

The responses of the pro-democracy movement have been largely premised on a neoliberal framework to politics and state-craft despite the existing material and social conditions pointing otherwise. The pro-democracy movement has mainly pursued constitutional reformism and electoralism in an economy that is predominantly agrarian, informal, and dominated by natural resource extraction and the service industry. This brings into question these strategies, and more importantly, the future of democratic politics in Zimbabwe.

Democracy under threat

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed democracy under one of its biggest threats. Authoritarian strategies have become the de facto norm adopted by governments. Singaporean Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan, makes an important observation on the three pillars that may make any country manage to respond effectively to Covid-19: “In fact, this is an acid test for every single country’s quality of healthcare, standard of governance and social capital. If any one of the pillars in the tripod is weak, it will be exposed, and exposed quite unmercifully by this epidemic.”

It is important to note that governance is one of the key pillars for the state’s capacity to respond effectively to COVID-19; a failure within that realm may mean disaster in the end. In this case, governance speaks to how public power and policy are deployed and used within the state. This poses questions on how public officials and institutions are operating and guiding their conduct in seeking to enforce laws meant to contain and suppress the spread of the virus. There have been widespread reports of heavy-handed approaches that have seen the rise of what Jared Rodriguez calls the “…support for pedagogical apparatuses of spectacularised violence, fear mongering and state terror…”, thus “creating fertile grounds for the cultivation and inclusion of authoritarian politics…”.

China instituted a total lockdown of the country that has been reported to have been accompanied by the erosion of people’s freedoms in the name of fighting the virus. Human Rights Watch has accused China of resorting to “automated tyranny”. Reason Foundation’s Shika Dalmia argues that beneath the veneer of China’s so-called impressive response to combat the virus, the Chinese authorities used a variety of tools to infringe on the privacy of people, including pharmacies to spy and collect data on customers, social platforms AllPay and WeChat to install tracking software on their users, and China Telecom colour-coded phones to screen people. It also paid close to 300,000 volunteers to spy on residents and report to the police, and rewarded neighbours to spy on each other. The police barged into homes to forcibly take away suspected COVID-19 patients.

China instituted a total lockdown of the country that has been reported to have been accompanied by the erosion of people’s freedoms in the name of fighting the virus. Human Rights Watch has accused China of resorting to “automated tyranny”.

These tactics mirror heavy surveillance of citizens in Nazi Germany. The reports of China building a hospital in 10 days whilst democracies such as the United States of America, United Kingdom and India dithered on responses inadvertently led to a discussion on which form of governance is better. The net effect has been lethal propaganda that created a fallacy of an efficient system, especially after reports of China building the hospital. Western media and scholars fell for this propaganda charm offensive that projected the Chinese system as efficient and superior while Western democracies were seen as slow and sloppy. For instance, Yale professor, Nicholas Christakis, ran a thread on Twitter praising China’s collectivist culture and authoritarian government as unprecedented and impressive.

Yet, the global media and leading scholars have been silent on how democracies like Taiwan, Iceland, South Korea and Germany have managed to successfully and effectively respond to combating COVID-19. In South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa undertook widespread consultations with a wide variety of key stakeholders, and cobbled a national consensus with the opposition, civil society, churches and business leaders. In addition, the country adopted an open and transparent information management system and tapped into expert scientists for advice. By the 9th 0f April, South Africa was reported to have increased its testing capacity of 5,000/day by six-fold after adding 60 more mobile testing units to the existing 7, combined with 180 testing sites and 320 testing units across the country.

Similarly, according to Don Reisinger, “Germany has had remarkably few Covid-19 deaths, which experts attribute partly to its high number of hospital beds and ICU beds”. Despite having a high numbers of people infected by the coronavirus, Germany has managed to lower its fatality rate, which in March 22 stood at 0.3 per cent. The death rate as of 29 March 2020 was much lower than that of China, Italy and many other countries around the world. Germany is stated to have “8.1 hospital beds per 1,000 people and 6.1 ICU beds per 1 000 people”, something highly remarkable in comparison to “Italy has 3.2 hospital beds per 1 000 and 2.6 ICU beds per 1 000”. It is these positive stories from democracies that have not gained prominence in comparison to the ones from the Benevolent Brutal Dragon’s propaganda.

Africa’s emerging trend of authoritarianism

Images of security forces beating and torturing civilians to enforce COVID-19 lockdowns in Africa have been dominating social media. Trevor Nnabugu of Ventures Africa, an online news site, provides a chronicle of human rights abuses in Rwanda, Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria. In these cases, security forces are accused of using indiscriminate and disproportionate force, including murder, rape, beatings and public humiliation, in a bid to enforce the lockdowns. The rising cases of police brutality in Africa, while not unique to the region, signify the tendency of our security apparatus to revert to the default logic of violence.

In Zambia, the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) took no time to suspend the licence of Prime TV on the 9th of April 2020 on the basis that it was unpatriotic and threatening public safety after the media outlet refused to air the government’s COVID-19 commercials for free. Before that, the government had banned its officials from conducting business with and appearing on Prime TV broadcasts. It also barred Prime TV’s journalists from attending official events. In addition, on 27th March 2020, Top Star Communication Limited Company, a partly state-owned television signal carrier, informed Prime TV that it would stop carrying its broadcast in a bid to blackout the television as punishment for its consistent criticism of the ruling party, the Patriotic Front (PF). In all these acts, the hand of the state is quite visible in attempting to close an independent media that has always been critical of government.

Images of security forces beating and torturing civilians to enforce COVID-19 lockdowns in Africa have been dominating social media. Trevor Nnabugu of Ventures Africa, an online news site, provides a chronicle of human rights abuses in Rwanda, Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria.

A leading African Women’s Rights Activist, Nancy Kachingwe, quipped on Twitter: “Dear African leaders, a pandemic isn’t a war, it’s a public health crisis made worse by your failures to build strong public health systems you’ve not been attacked, you’ve been found wanting batons & beatings solve nothing…”

The tweet surmises the logic and attitude of African leaders, where every solution is perceived as a nail and that needs a hammer.

Dr David Ndii, in an interview with The Elephant, warned us extensively:

We have to guard, organise and push back against what I see as an opportunistic clawback of civil liberties in the days of disease emergencies, as well as human rights violations. And I have already talked about default police brutality, which is already the default of many of our states with a legacy of repressive regimes. So that is something which I think particularly organised civil society has to be very vigilant because you can see some of these people cynically even using this to suspend civil liberties. They have been trying to do it, even before coronavirus. So now they have this perfect excuse to do what they want.

Nowhere does this warning ring more true than in Africa, and more specifically in Zimbabwe. The beleaguered Harare regime has wasted no time to use the opportunity availed by COVID-19 to usurp legislative authority at the expense of promoting executive authority in a patently unconstitutional manner and to decimate the opposition and civil society.

Zimbabwe, the unrepentant child

On Friday, the 27th of March 2020, President Mnangagwa announced a 21-day national lockdown to be implemented starting from midnight of 30th March 2020. This move came after some dithering by the Harare authorities, which were heavily criticised for failing to prepare for an impending medical disaster.

The announcement of the lockdown was positively received and praised across the political divide, a rare moment in Zimbabwe’s political history. However, the positive vibe and bipartisan consensus, and the possibility of an elite cohesion towards cobbling a national response, was quickly lost. The Ministry of Information Secretary, Nick Mangwana, through his TL @nickmangwana forewarned what was to come: “The total lockdown to contain the spread of Covid-19 will start at midnight with the Government passionately calling on citizens to comply with the directive and instructions from security personnel deployed to enforce the law.”

Already the government was psyching itself into a combative mood. The Presidential Spokesperson, George Charamba, through his TL @jamwanda2, threatened the unleashing of the army in the low-income suburbs: “MaFACE angu ekumaGhetto, kindly note that pranks and drinking sprees in streets this evening will come to grief!!!! THE BOYS ARE BACK IN TOWN!!!!!!! Loosely translated: My friends from the low income suburbs, kindly note that pranks and drinking in streets this evening will come to grief!!!! THE BOYS ARE BACK IN TOWN!!!!!!!

Indeed, soldiers were deployed and immediately the cries of agony echoed all over the country, as videos of residents being either beaten or tortured by security forces started to circulate on social media.

The announcement of the lockdown was positively received and praised across the political divide, a rare moment in Zimbabwe’s political history. However, the positive vibe and bipartisan consensus, and the possibility of an elite cohesion towards cobbling a national response, was quickly lost.

In Karoi, Masvondo, a local resident, had to petition the court after some members of the Zimbabwe National Army allegedly barged into her homestead and assaulted everyone within her household under the guise of enforcing a lockdown. In Mutare, police burned agricultural produce headed for the markets, insisting that everyone should observe the stay-at-home instruction. Harare’s popular vegetable market, Mbare Musika had saddening stories of farmers and vegetable vendors, whose produce was getting rotten because of lack of access to the market.

The government had to recant some of its policy directives after there were huge outcries, even from its traditional support bases. The planning and implementation of the lockdown was not well thought-out, hence the disastrous results from the onset. As of 16th April, the Media Institute in Southern Africa-Zimbabwe (MISA-Zim) had recorded several cases of downstream vendors whose rights had been violated under the pretext of enforcing the lockdown.

Most journalists have been facing harassment over accreditation, despite the Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC) having acknowledged to have failed to approve the registration of journalists for the year 2020. Pursuant to that, the ZMC issued a communique that journalists’ 2019 accreditation had been automatically renewed and could be used for the year 2020. Despite this policy position of the authorities, the security services have been acting on the contrary and continue to harass journalists. Even the pro-government newspaper, the Herald, had to break with tradition and pen an editorial comment on the 13th of April 2020 rebuking and questioning the motives of the police. The Zimbabwean High Court also went further by barring the police’s heavy handedness.

The judiciary in Zimbabwe has also come under heavy criticism during the pandemic after issuing a judgment that has fundamentally reconfigured the opposition in Zimbabwe. Earlier on, the judiciary had issued a notice that it was suspending court processes and would only attend to urgent cases related to the implementation of lockdown measures. Bail hearings were suspended and even new cases were not going to be dealt with until after the end of the lockdown.

Interestingly, Dr. Thokozani Khupe, one of the claimants to the heir of the Movement for Democratic Change, tweeted on the 31st of March that the Supreme Court will deliver judgment on the long standing matter on the legitimate heir to the throne after the death of founding leader Morgan Tsvangirayi on the 14th of February 2018. What followed became an intriguing and choreographed series of events that cast further doubts on the independence of the judiciary.

Dr Alex Magaisa of Kent University in the United Kingdom gives a nuanced analysis of this drama in his Big Saturday Read blog. He summed it as compromised and selective. State security institutions have been heavily compromised and made partisan, and this has been very evident during their operations during COVID-19. Ever since the Supreme Court judgment, dramatic and bizarre events have followed, where the main opposition MDC Alliance has lost its elected representatives (Members of Parliament and Councillors) and party offices to a party that it contested against in the 2018 elections. A significant number of lawyers associated with the MDC Alliance have also been arrested and charged with spurious allegations. Three ladies from the youth assembly who dared to protest were abducted from police custody and sexually abused, and also later arrested for violating lockdown rules despite the government failing to come out clean on the abductors.

Blessed Mhlanga, one of Zimbabwe’s top journalists, through his TL @bbmhlanga on the 16th of April 2020, tweeted the case of Senator Tofa from the leading opposition Movement for Democratic Change Alliance who was barred by the police from donating humanitarian aid to the needy. In the same tweet, Mhlanga further claimed that the police went further to instruct millers not sell Honourable Tofa any mealie-meal. Earlier, on the 8th of April 2020, Honourable Caston Matewu of Marondera Central constituency claimed that the police in Marondera had refused his donation to fight COVID-19 on political grounds. Such stories are not surprising in Zimbabwe, where state security institutions have been compromised by the ruling party.

A close reading of these cases and many others show that the security services are using the logic of force to deal with purely civilian issues. A tweet by @matigary, a pro-government online troll, surmises the thinking in government: “SA military SANDF is kicking ass & bashing heads. I am inviting Dewa Mavhinga & his nywe nywe (talk too much) human rights crowd to test SANDF by defying the lockdown.”

This celebration of spectacularised violence within the security services’ response to public health issues, which are largely civilian, are very worrying and also indicate that Zimbabwe is still an unrepentant child, despite claims of a “New Dispensation” after the fall of Robert Mugabe.

An alert but limited pro-democracy movement

Zimbabwe has had an alert and very lively pro-democracy movement that has managed to successfully call out the government and ruling party whenever they fall out of line. This pro-democracy movement has been composed of the loose alliance of the main opposition, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), and democracy and human rights advocacy NGOs.

For instance, during this COVID-19 lockdown, the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) has been at the forefront of providing legal defence to human rights defenders, journalists and ordinary citizens who found themselves at the mercy of authorities. The ZLHR has also funded public interest litigation that has also seen the High Court directing the Ministry of Health to provide professional protective equipment (PPE) to health workers and roll out testing to the public. A significant number of NGOs and business and church leaders have also come to the fore, establishing charity platforms to mobilise humanitarian aid to support the vulnerable and refurbish medical centres and equip them with the necessary resources to mitigate the effects of the pandemic.

A close reading of the responses of the pro-democracy movement in Zimbabwe clearly shows that it is very active and vibrant but always gets checkmated by its limited approach in dissecting national questions. Civil society in Zimbabwe has hardly questioned the role of the state, focusing more on legalism and litigation to discipline the errant state. This has seen the promotion of civil liberties at the expense of material and cultural rights.

It is abundantly clear that from the foregoing observations that the current architecture of the state has put into sharp relief the limitations of the neo-liberal state and markets. The question therefore, that beckons is: How do post-liberation movements deal with the question of material rights and redefine themselves? This is the elephant in the room that the pro-democracy movement in Zimbabwe has to tackle.

The responses to COVID-19 require to be put in a broader structural framework that is historical and not only driven by the moment. As Dr. Balakrishnan cautioned, “But let me tell you as a doctor, these are things you cannot just build up overnight. It takes years and years of investment in people, in systems, in capacity.

A close examination will reveal that the countries that have managed to effectively respond to the pandemic are those with strong investments in public health. This brings us back to the question of the role of the state.

Civil society in Zimbabwe has hardly questioned the role of the state, focusing more on legalism and litigation to discipline the errant state. This has seen the promotion of civil liberties at the expense of material and cultural rights.

Zimbabwe’s economy has been largely agrarian, natural resource dependant, dominated by the service industry and characterised by high levels of informality and precarity. The labour force survey of 2014 estimated that 94.5 per cent of Zimbabweans earned their living in the informal sector. In 2017, artisanal/small-scale miners accounted for more gold output than large-scale miners. In 2012, the Environmental Management Agency of 2012 estimated their number to be around 500 000, a figure that should have grown by now.

In the 2018-2019 season, tobacco farmers recorded an all-time high yield of 258 million kilogrammes. Estimates put the number of small-scale farmers to between 80,000 and 90,000. Professor Brian Raftopoulos in his 2013 article, “Zimbabwean politics in the post 2013 election”, asserts that the country’s political economy had been reconfigured, giving rise to a new social base and thus calling for new forms of organising. This new social base is characterised by high levels of de-industrialisation and informality. The coming of the COVID-19 pandemic further problematises the role of the state and politics of public goods, especially in highly informalised economies like Zimbabwe. It’s quite clear that the issue of public goods can no longer be reduced to either the magic of the market or benevolent philanthropy and celebrity activism.

Looking ahead

It is patently clear that the COVID-19 response in Zimbabwe has seen an absent state. The state has largely relied on benevolent philanthropy and celebrity activism whilst looting the public purse. The Ministry of Health and NatPharm (the national pharmaceutical company, a public enterprise) have been embroiled in one looting scandal after another. An investigation and expose by two online websites, ZimLive and The Zimbabwe Morning Post, implicate high profile government officials and the president’s children in fleecing the treasury through overpricing of medical supplies under the guise of dealing with COVID-19-related emergencies. These corruption scandals even gained the attention of Interpol, the international police agency, after a two-week-old company got paid US$2million by the Zimbabwe government.

A close examination will reveal that the countries that have managed to effectively respond to the pandemic are those with strong investments in public health. This brings us back to the question of the role of the state.

Meanwhile, the opposition has failed to make the government accountable as it is embroiled in internecine fights arising from the Supreme Court judgment of 31st of March 2020. At best, the main opposition has managed to issue a series of press statements without showing any clear direction on how to move forward.

Looking ahead, Zimbabwe’s pro-democracy movement may need to learn from Professor Issa Shivji’s wise words extensively quoted below:

The contemporary neo-liberal discourse has one fundamental blind spot. It treats the present as if the present has had no history. The discourse on democracy in Africa suffers from the same blindness. The struggle for democracy did not begin with the postcold war introduction of multi-party system. The independence and liberation struggles for self‐determination, beginning in the postworld war period, were eminently a struggle for democracy. Neither formal independence nor the victory of armed liberation movements marked the end of democratic struggles. They continued, albeit in different forms…the great democratic struggles of the African people expressed in their independence and national liberation movements remain incomplete. The so-called democracy constructed on ahistorical and asocial paradigms of neo-liberalism are an expression of renewed imperial onslaught, which is profoundly anti‐democratic…

This would mean a return to a political economy for the pro-democracy movement in Zimbabwe, which should begin to articulate the democratic struggle within the lived realities of the cross-border trader, the vegetable and fruit vendor, the small-scale farmer, the artisanal miner, the slum dweller in Hopley, the informal taxi operator, the menial worker and all the subalterns within Zimbabwe’s informalised economy. Doing so means bringing in class analysis and social and economic justice-based solutions to the core of public policy.

The current COVID-19-induced response of the state has shown why the pro-democracy movement should disentangle itself from the fallacious promise of neoliberal democracy and the magic of the market. Only when and until the pro-democracy movement in Zimbabwe realises that democracy needs to shift from just fighting for civil liberties to articulating how public goods and services can be rescued from the profit motive to bring about a better quality of life to humanity can it checkmate the reigning authoritarianism. This is the same way that the liberation movement was able to checkmate the Rhodesian Gulag State, despite its last leader, Ian Smith, proclaiming that “never in a thousand years”, will there ever be black rule.

Professor Shivji’s wisdom is instructive here:

The struggle for democracy is primarily a political struggle on the form of governance, thus involving the reconstitution of the state. No one claims that democracy means and aims at social emancipation. Rather it is located on the terrain of political liberalism so, at best, creating conditions for the emancipatory project. This is important to emphasize in light of the hegemony of neoliberal discourse, which tends to emasculate democracy of its social and historical dimensions and present it as an ultimate nirvana.

The question is: What would state reconstitution look like? Is it a return to socialism, the democratic developmental state or the social democratic state? The answer lies in any path that straddles through any of those types of state or their combination.

However, it is clear from the foregoing that the neoliberal state is not the solution. To respond to the rising authoritarianism, the pro-democracy movements need to return democratic politics to the core of delivering public goods and services and not servicing profits and the market. Doing so may mean designing critical intellectual projects meant to push back nationalist authoritarianism, increasing public ligation on the enforcement of the expanded bill of rights in the 2013 Constitution, building people’s movements anchored in collective action and solidarity around public goods rather than electoralism, and shying away from oligarchic tendencies.

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Were the Kariobangi North Evictions Legal or Illegal?

The forced and brutal eviction of thousands of people from a low-income settlement in Nairobi at the height of a curfew has raised questions about what owning land means in a city where the procedures to acquiring property are notoriously dicey and confusing, and often dependent on a patronage system.

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Were the Kariobangi North Evictions Legal or Illegal?
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I went to Kariobangi North Sewerage settlement on 4 June, exactly a month after the dawn demolitions took place, and long after the tell-tale signs of the raid had been erased. On 4 May, at the height of a dusk-to-dawn curfew across the country, 8,000 people had been evicted from this settlement. The eviction was widely condemned but the authorities seemed unmoved by the plight of the evictees.

The chaos and commotion had ebbed away and life in Korogocho slum, one of the more than 200 informal settlements in Nairobi, had resumed its rhythmic motion. It was bustling with humanity – coronavirus or no coronavirus. Few people wore face masks; many more did not even bother to social distance. The Korogocho Market, the heartbeat of Korogocho ghetto, was a beehive of activity, with buyers and sellers haggling over prices of every imaginable merchandise.

“Without Korogocho Market there is no Koch [short for Korogocho]”, said Mwaura, my 24-year-old interlocutor, a Kenyatta University Bachelor of Education student who grew up in Grogan, one of the nine villages that make up Korogocho, but who now resides at Korogocho B. “Grogan, where my parents live, is now my gichagi [my rural home],” he explained.

People like Mwaura, whose parents came to the city in a wave of rural-urban migration (pushed by the colonial forces of the tumultuous 1950s) have always remained squatters after having been uprooted from their ancestral homes.

“The market breathes life into Korogocho area. “You can practically find anything you want at the market. It attracts customers from far and wide,” said Mwaura. The market has been embedded into the Korogocho peoples’ lives: Korogocho slum was the market and the market was Korogocho. “The market defines the Korogocho people – the best and the worst of the Korogocho people are found here – the market is a melting crucible of Korogocho’s hopes and aspirations.”

On the morning of 4 May, at about 5.30 a.m., David Maina Ngugi, an early riser, was having his cup of morning tea when his mobile phone rang. It was from his friend, who told him to quickly get out of the house because the bulldozers had moved in. When he came out, after hastily waking up his wife, the rumbling excavators had started their work in their conventional style of flattening everything on site.

Accompanying the bulldozers were an assortment of armed-to-the teeth regular police, Administration Police and the General Service Unit (GSU), a paramilitary outfit infamous for its brutal incursions. “I think in total they were about 350 policemen,” said the 72-year-old Ngugi. “They’d come to ensure the four bulldozers executed their work with minimal interruption.”

The people waking up from their slumber watched the morning raid in utter disbelief. Uncharacteristically, they did not put up a fight, perhaps because they were too shocked by the surprise morning attack. Instead, they watched as their houses were being crushed to the ground. “Very few people salvaged their properties The dawn raid caught many people half-asleep and by the time they were waking up to the day’s realities, local hoodlums had also moved in to help themselves to anything that they could lay their hands on,” said Ngugi.

Mzee Ngugi, who owned four iron-sheet shacks, said he barely saved much from the rubble: “My iron sheets, steel doors and metal windows were stolen by thugs. I couldn’t restrain them; I was all alone and they were like a pack of wolves, so I just stood aside and watched.”

Accompanying the bulldozers were an assortment of armed-to-the teeth regular police, Administration Police and the General Service Unit (GSU), a paramilitary outfit infamous for its brutal incursions. “I think in total they were about 350 policemen,” said the 72-year-old Ngugi. “They’d come to ensure the four bulldozers executed their work with minimal interruption.”

Despite his age, Ngugi’s body is still strong. “I’m used to walking a lot. I’d walk from here to Allsopps,” he said. Allsopps area is at the junction between Outer Ring Road and Thika super highway. The distance between Kariobangi North and Allsopps is about seven kilometres. The latter is called Allsopps because East African Breweries Limited (EABL) used to have a plant at the corner of where these two roads meet, separate from the main beer plant in the Ruaraka area that manufactured Allsopps beer. The name stuck even after the EABL closed the plant many years ago.

“In the morning I’d do push-ups and physical fitness, but these demolitions have crushed my spirit,” said Ngugi. “At 72 years, I’ve been made to start all over again, but where do I even start from now?” The old man said he had sunk his meagre savings and pension into buying four plots in the area through the Kariobangi Sewerage Farmers Self-help Group. “I’d hoped my sunset years would be spent here because I did not have any other place I called home.”

When I met Ngugi, he had just acquired a 10 by 10 rental room in Korogocho B, next to the wall of Daniel Comboni Primary School. He told me that after the eviction, he sent his wife to a family friend’s home in Grogan village. “The demolition separated families. I’ve not seen my wife for three weeks, even though we speak on phone. I couldn’t immediately get someone who would house the two of us together.”

The self-help group

The Kariobangi Sewerage Farmers Self-Help Group was formed in the mid-1990s and given the name farmers because the first people who started frequenting the sewerage plant were women who would farm bananas, sugar cane, yams and other root tubers right next to the sewerage.

“The City Council of Nairobi, which owned the plant, allowed us women to farm on a section of the sewerage area in the evenings, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m,” said Mary Wambui Kamau. “The women were the first people to be allocated plots at the sewerage by the City Council officials who worked at the site because they had already developed a rapport with the officials.” Wambui said she first started farming in the area in 1996.

The 75-year-old lady said that to be old and poor in Nairobi was like being cursed and forgotten. A former employee of the defunct City Council of Nairobi, she had acquired two plots at the sewerage site and built her semi-permanent houses with her pension. “I bought my two plots for Sh600 each, quite an amount for people like me then, because I used to earn Sh320 per month and paid Sh90 as house rent. With her seven children (three later died) and a husband who did not have a permanent job and was landless, she believed that buying the sewerage plot was the wisest decision she had ever made.

Wambui grew up in Ndondori in what is today Nakuru County. “I was a little girl during the state of emergency period of the 1950s. [The British colonial government instituted the emergency between 1952 and1959] and my father was a squatter. Forced to flee from Ndondori, he found himself in Lari [today in Kiambu County]. In short, my father struggled throughout his life and never owned land.”

Wambui married early, at the age of 20. With her husband, she moved to Nairobi to eke out a living and start a family. “Rift Valley had been always a volatile region and so my hubby said we try our luck in the city where we didn’t always have to look behind our back.” Her husband died in 2004.

When the women corps who farmed the sewerage land grew and became big, the sewerage officials asked them to form a group, explained Wambui. This way it would be easier to engage in, mobilise for and push their agenda. To give weight to their agenda, they decided to buy plots of land within the sewerage area. They approached Adolf Muchiri, then the MP for Kasarani. Until 2012, the Kariobangi sewerage area was in Kasarani constituency; today, it is in Embakasi North, but government and social services are still run from the Kasarani DC’s offices.

“Muchiri backed our idea and we would have our meetings at the sewerage site. Later we moved those meetings elsewhere,” said Wambui. “Even as Muchiru backed our idea and said he would lend us political support, we continued to engage the sewerage officials, since, anyway, they were our gateway to owing a piece of the earth of the city council land.”

By the time the Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company (NAWASCO) came to run the sewerage site in 2004, Kariobangi Sewerage Farmers Self-help Group was already in existence and allocated land adjacent to the Kariobangi light industries.

“The self-help group already had 370 members by the time the Nairobi County provided a surveyor to demarcate the land about two years ago,” said Ngugi. The 370-member group was settled on 11 acres of the 25-acre sewerage land. Of these 370 members, “Kikuyus formed the largest chunk of the group. They possibly constituted about 70 per cent of the members, followed by Somalis, then Kambas, then a small group of Luos,” said Ngugi. The mzee said the plots were divided into 24 by 50 sizes and claimed that all this work was done by the Nairobi County government.

“When I got my two plots, I gave them to my sons,” said Wambui. In 2010, one of her sons, who worked at the nearby Kariobangi light industries, started living at the sewerage area with his family of four. Wambui then moved to Kariobangi A village, where I found her and some of her grandchildren. She told me that her son and grandchildren had moved in with her after being evicted. “Since coming here, we’ve been attacked two times by robbers who saw him bring along some of his items that he had salvaged,” she said.

Wambui claims that the self-help group had been issued with a group title by the Nairobi County and the county was even in the process of issuing individual titles. But there were some hitches: The self-help group has been in a tug of war with the Jua Kali Light Industries group over the allotment of plots at the sewerage site, a case that is in court. “It is true we’ve been having a long- running court case with the Jua Kali group,” said Wambui, “but we have the documents and they don’t have them and that is the difference.”

Wambui claims that the self-help group had been issued with a group title by the Nairobi County and the county was even in the process of issuing individual titles.

The sudden turn of events has broken her resolve to have a better life in her sunset years. “At 75, what else do I expect in life? I thought I’d live out the remaining years of my life in peace, but now I’ve been thrown into turmoil. I voted for Uhuru Kenyatta twice, in a very difficult area, where we are surrounded by hostile opposition. Yet at my age I woke up at 2 a.m. to queue for him and this is what I get in return? Is it that Uhuru is not aware of our plight, or now that we’re done with voting, he’s through with us?”

Missing papers

But 70-year-old Nyina wa John (John’s mother), a veteran of the sewerage plots’ acquisition and chairlady of the self-help group, has a slightly different story to tell. “What some of the afflicted families have narrated to you is correct. But as far as I’m concerned, the only incorrect information they did not tell you is that all that documentation and paperwork they are talking about had never been legalised. If it had, I would have been the first one to know and even be in possession of the rightful said documents of the land. As it is, I’m not aware of any [bona fide and legal] title deed issued to Kariobangi Self-Help Farmers Group. I’m aware that the group was even paying land rates to City Hall. That’s okay. You can pay rates. Paying rates doesn’t translate to owning the land.”

The chairlady’s assertions were corroborated by Daniel Kirugo. Kirugo is the senior chief of Muthua village in Uthiru location. I first met him in 2006 at the Kariobangi sewerage area. He was the second chief to have been posted to the area. “I know the history of the sewerage [land] very well. It is unfortunate what happened to the people, but the crux of the matter is, the self-help group’s papers are not legal. I’d know because I’ve kept in touch with some of the people who live there, the self-group’s wrangles with Jua Kali Light Industries group notwithstanding.”

The dispute between the Kariobangi Sewerage Farmers Self-Help and the Jua Kali Light Industries group led by Rashid Kaberere and one Kinyua introduced the dreaded Mungiki in the acquisition of the sewerage land. They both hired the young men to defend and fight off each other. For their work, the proscribed Mungiki group was rewarded with several plots at the sewerage site, which were dished out to them by both parties.

“Many of these Mungiki youth later sold their plots to Somalis,” said Kirugo. “Somali buyers were also involved because they had the money to finance the case in court. Another reason why the Somalis came to own the sewerage land is because they would pay double or even thrice the going market price of the plots.” That is how Isaak Aden became the chairman of the self-help group.

Hence, the majority of the Kikuyus at the site had ceased being landlords; they became tenants. How and why? “Because they sold their pieces of land to Somalis who paid a premium [for the plots],” said mzee Ngugi. “Money is good and anybody who gives you the kind of money you’ve been wishing to have becomes first priority and that’s how Somalis came to be landlords here.”

The Somalis put up semi-permanent houses, which they rented to some of the very Kikuyus who had sold them the plots of land. “The upcoming stone houses were built by Somalis because they were the presumed landowners and because they could afford to put up better structures,” added Ngugi.

“I had three plots at the sewerage,” said a man who asked me not to reveal his identity, “and it is my considered opinion the self-help group didn’t have proper documentation. All the papers they claim to have and refer to were issued by the City Council of Nairobi pre-1998, during the reign of Zipporah Wandera, the then town clerk. The subsequent mayors were never involved in the sewerage matters. For such a matter to acquire the seal of authenticity, it should involve the top echelons of the city authorities. As it is, it seems the matter was only discussed by sewerage officials and some partisan people at the City Hall.

“Orders from above”

Whether the self-help group’s papers had been legalised or not notwithstanding, Ngugi told me the self-help group’s leadership had even engaged Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company (NAWASCO) officials. “They were mum, claiming the demolition orders came from above. Next we visited the District Officer’s office in Kasarani, where the stock-in-trade answer was the same: ‘Orders from above’”.

Pleading for strict anonymity, because he is not authorised to speak to journalists, a top NAWASCO official said that the people had to be booted out ostensibly because the government had been given a Sh3 billion grant by the World Bank to expand and refurbish the sewer and water system of Nairobi county. All the Nairobi wastage used to drain at the Kariobangi sewerage site until Ruai sewerage was built to complement the Kariobangi one. The Kariobangi sewerage has six gargantuan septic tanks, but with the growing city population occasioned by all the real estate developments that have taken place in the last 40 years, the septic tanks became overwhelmed.

The Somalis put up semi-permanent houses, which they rented to some of the very Kikuyus who had sold them the plots of land. “The upcoming stone houses were built by Somalis because they were the presumed landowners and because they could afford to put up better structures,” added Ngugi.

I wound up my visit to Korogocho by visiting Mary Njoroge, a vendor at Korogocho Market. Her stall overlooks the eastern flank of the Kariobangi sewerage. No sooner had the dwellers been ferreted out than a stone wall was erected all around the sewerage land. On that eastern flank, the wall was as high as 12 feet, raised by the heavier nine by nine stone. “My house used to be inside the wall. It’s amazing how life can take a turn for the worse, so suddenly,” she said

Njoroge, who is in her early 50s, had lived in the sewerage area for 10 years. Her last child was born there.

Taking time to talk to me, away from her customers, Njoroge said life that life was cruel and full of contradictions: “Can you believe I was one of Uhuru’s major campaigners in this area? Kariobangi sewerage was a Jubilee zone and we fought tooth and nail to protect his votes. Look now where some of us are languishing – in the cold, with zero prospects.”

Protecting Jubilee votes meant walking the length and breadth of Korogocho and exhorting all the Kikuyus to not sleep on the day of voting, first on August 8, and then on October 26, 2017. “We’d have expected that the government would defend us and not expose us to the vagaries of the weather and coronavirus.”

During the week that their structures were demolished, heavy rain pounded Nairobi County. Many former Kariobangi North Sewerage dwellers, including small children, slept out in the cold.

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Saba Saba At 30: The Gains We Have Lost

The 30th Saba Saba anniversary comes at a time of great political apprehension, with the country in the throes of an economic meltdown and in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic. With the elections that will determine who will be Kenya’s next president just two years away, the country is slipping back into those bad, black days of Moi and Moism.

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Saba Saba At 30: The Gains We Have Lost
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This Tuesday the 7th of July 2020 marks the 30th anniversary of the infamous and bloody Saba Saba Day (seventh day of the seventh month) upheavals that are still etched in the memory of the many Kenyans old enough to vividly recall those heady days of the struggle for the second liberation. It was a day of infamy, as President Daniel arap Moi, now deceased, unleashed his security apparatus on hapless, innocent Kenyans, killing and maiming many of them for daring to call for a return to multipartyism.

Three days prior, on 4 July 4 1990, Kenneth Matiba and Charles Rubia, former Kanu government cabinet ministers who had fallen out with Moi (both now deceased), and Raila Odinga—who had just returned from self-exile in Oslo, Norway—had been arrested on the orders of President Moi. The 4th of July is America’s Independence Day. Kenyan political analysts have always wondered whether it was mere coincidence or a conspiracy between Moi and the American government to have the trio arrested on the very day America would be celebrating its much vaunted independence day. Did the American government have something to do with their arrests? “Why would the Americans, who were friends of the three, allow Moi to detain them on their big day”, Augustine Njeru Kathangu, one of the architects of Saba Saba, has always wondered.

The Saba Saba demonstrations heralded the beginning of week-long urban riots that came to symbolise the determination of Kenyans to maintain their demands for an increased democratic and political space that had been throttled by a dictatorial Moi and a despotic Kanu party. The mounting pressure brought to bear on Moi was such that he was forced to quickly constitute a Kanu Review Committee (referred to as the Committee), which immediately started its work on 25 July 25 1990.

The formation of the Committee by the beleaguered President was, ostensibly, to seek Kenyans’ views on the current state of the country’s politics. But the truth of the matter was that Moi was trying to buy time as he figured out how he was going to acquiesce to plural politics without losing face. Chaired by the then Vice President George Saitoti, the Committee was peppered with Kanu loyalists such as Nicholas Biwott, Peter Oloo Aringo, Shariff Nasir, Elijah Mwangale and Mwai Kibaki, among others.

The Committee visited nine towns during the month of August: Eldoret, Embu, Garissa, Nairobi, Kakamega, Kisumu, Mombasa, Nakuru and Nyeri. It visited Nairobi twice; on July 25 and on 23 and 24 August1990. Among the more bizarre recommendations that the Committee made was “that Kenya should continue in its tradition of one-party democracy. That all leaders in every sphere of life particularly religious leaders, politicians, lawyers, journalists and other professionals, should cease their confrontational stance and adopt a positive attitude towards issues in order to build a more peaceful and prosperous Kenya”.

With these sorts of recommendations, a contemptuous Moi and dyed-in-the-wool Kanu party mandarins, it was obvious that Kenyans’ agitation for a return to multiparty politics was destined to continue to be bloody and confrontational.

“Moi’s Kanu dictatorship was not ready for changes, but the people had smelt an opportunity and they were willing to push ahead with political reforms”, said Kathangu. A former army man and a devout Catholic who never misses the morning mass wherever it might find him, Kathangu had been planning for the Saba Saba day for two months together with four other people,

“We started planning for the Saba Saba from May”, recalled Kathangu. “I had an office at Musa House on the third floor, on Landhies Road, where we would meet and plan how we were to mobilise for the big day”. Kathangu’s four other compatriots were: Edward Oyugi, a former Kenyatta University don and detainee; Ngotho Kariuki, a tax consultant, university don and ex-detainee; George Anyona, the political firebrand, former MP and ex-detainee; and Kariuki Kathitu, a university don.

Of the five, Kathitu is the least known of those who were associated not only with the planning of that first Saba Saba, but also, more generally, with the second liberation of the 1990s. “Raila joined us much later. Raila is my friend, but I’ve always referred to him as a witness to the Saba Saba movement. He was much more involved with the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy movement formed in 1991, than Saba Saba, which his father Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and others such as James Orengo, Martin Shikuku and Salim Bamahriz, helped form”.

“Matiba joined us later after he had read the public mood correctly, but also after falling out with Moi publicly”, said Kathangu. “Matiba had had an interesting special relationship with Moi. They had been great friends. When Matiba was the Permanent Secretary for Education, he used to coach Vice President Moi in the evenings, on the proper usage of the English language, mostly on the spoken English. So they knew each other well. Moi had been Matiba’s good student. But when Moi became the president in 1978, his man in Murang’a was Julius Kiano. Matiba’s entry into politics and his routing out of Moi’s man in Mbiri constituency was always going to create a problem between the two.”

Kathangu told me that it was Matiba who recruited Rubia. “Rubia was initially not in the movement for change, but his friend who was an area mate—they both came from the larger Murang’a—invited him along and that’s how Rubia, who had also been facing political frustrations from Moi, joined the opposition. Matiba came looking for us after he was disgraced by Moi. Matiba was a man who once he made up his mind, it was difficult to persuade him otherwise”.

Matiba’s falling out with Moi was triggered by Moi’s open rigging of the Mlolongo (queue voting) elections in 1988 in his Kiharu (former Mbiri) constituency. “Matiba’s queue was the longest for all to see, yet Moi decided it was the shortest so that he could prop up his friend Kiano who Matiba had beaten hands down. Matiba hit the roof, he had captured his entire election process on the video. It was clearly evident Moi was rigging Matiba openly. And that was the beginning of the political problems between Moi and Matiba.”

Boisterous and oftentimes overconfident, Matiba went ahead together with Rubia to declare the return of multiparty politics in Kenya without the agreement of Kathangu and his friends. “He had jumped the gun, that’s not how we had planned to do it, but hey, since Matiba had already let the cat out of the bag, we went along, we didn’t deny them, neither did we deny that that is what we all along been planning to do”, observed Kathangu. “It was one of the first of the mistakes that Matiba would make as we fought for the second liberation”.

Although taken aback by Matiba’s pronouncements, Kathangu and his friends still went ahead to mobilise for Saba Saba day. “Our intentions were to mobilise people to congregate on the sacred grounds of Kamukunji. We’d coordinated and mobilised people from different parts of the country to travel to Kamukunji. People were to come from Githurai, Limuru, Kisumu, Mombasa, Murang’a, Nakuru and the other major towns in the country.”

To start off the day, and as a curtain raiser, the organisers planned football matches at the Kamukunji Grounds in the morning. “The matches were to be supervised by Kathitu and they were to help attract and assemble people at the grounds. At around 1p.m. Anyona and I drove into the grounds to see for ourselves what was going on. When the people saw us—they had been waiting on the wings around Gikomba Market, in Majengo and Shauri Moyo estates—they started moving into the grounds.” The organisers had hired buses to ferry people from upcountry and those buses had arrived in the morning.

“A police officer who later I came to learn was called Cheruiyot—I can’t remember his first name—and who had also camped at Kamukunji Grounds, apparently spotted us entering the ground”, reminisced Kathangu. “Once he saw us and once the people saw us enter the grounds and followed us, Cheruiyot called for extra support and soon combat police came. They beat people mercilessly with their batons and killed many youths with their live bullets”. As the police beat people in Kamukunji Grounds, word got around in parts of the country that mayhem had broken out in Nairobi and consequently, there were riots in Githurai, Limuru, Kisumu and Mombasa”. Kathangu observed that Moi ordered the arrest of more than 3,000 youths for the simple reason that they had supported the political changes being called for by opposition leaders.

Senior Counsel Paul Muite recalls the events of the day vividly: “My friend, the American ambassador to Malawi George Trail, had come to see me in my office at Electricity House in the city centre. He was from the US on his way to Malawi. Trail had been the No. 2 at the US embassy in Nairobi and we had become friends. Mohamed Ibrahim, a lawyer and today a judge of the High Court of Kenya had also passed by to see me on a legal matter. I’d planned after finishing with the two, I head to Karen Country Club to play golf. So I asked them we leave early to beat the lunch hour traffic jam”. He was going play golf with F.T. Nyamu, a Nyeri tycoon who later became the MP for Tetu constituency.

“It is at the club that my wife called me to tell me Matiba and Rubia had been carted away by the police”, said Muite. “In those days if police took you away, you knew you were headed for detention. After I parted with Ibrahim, the police, who had seen me leave my office with him [Moi had always stationed police to watch Muite’s sixth-floor office at the lifts area and on the ground floor], followed him and asked him to tell them where I had gone. Ibrahim didn’t know I’d gone to play golf. When Ibrahim told them he didn’t know my whereabouts, they didn’t believe him”. The police had detention orders with them and as they were talking to Ibrahim, they placed the detention order book on the table and he saw that the first detention sheet was signed and had Paul Muite’s name. The other order was not signed and didn’t have any name. “What the police did was fill the order with Ibrahim’s name and that’s how Ibrahim was detained on the spot by the police”.

Moi also ordered the arrest of Gitobu Imanyara and John Khaminwa, who together with Ibrahim became the most prominent lawyers to be detained Moi during the crackdown on the Saba Saba movement. Gibson Kamau Kuria, who had been detained in 1986, went to hide at the American embassy which then was under Smith Hempstone’s watch. Muite, who had all along ben staying at his house in Karen, escaped the crackdown, all because the police didn’t think he was “hiding” in his own house. “Hempstone piled pressure on Moi to release the lawyers, Imanyara, Khaminwa and Ibrahim and Muite, but Moi was in a dilemma, his government didn’t know where Muite was, so how was he going to also release him?”, said Muite.

It is then that Moi pleaded with Muite to come out of hiding and meet him at State House with an apology for inciting the Saba Saba day riots. “Moi blamed me for the riots and had asked me to write him an apology letter. I didn’t but I still went to meet him”.

The Saba Saba movement gave momentum to the first multiparty political rally held at the hallowed Kamukunji Grounds on 16 November 1991by the opposition leaders of the fledgling and nascent Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD), So determined were FORD leaders that they told Moi they were going to hold the meeting “with or without a licence”. Aware of the mounting pressure, internally and externally, Moi grudgingly allowed the meeting to go ahead.

Kenyans were itching for a second liberation, to free themselves from the political stranglehold that had culminated in the sham 1988 mlolongo elections. Buoyed by the winds of change sweeping through eastern Europe—the advent of glasnost (openness and transparency) and perestroika (restructuring), the disintegration of the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989—Kenyans seized the moment to challenge Moi and his brutal Kanu party, the supposedly baba na mama (father and mother) of all Kenyans as Kanu party stalwarts liked to put it

On the third anniversary of Saba Saba in July 1993, pro-democracy and reformist clergyman Timothy Njoya observed at the All Saints Cathedral in Nairobi that, “If we can have Moi Day as a national day to thank Moi for the contributions he made to himself, we can also have Saba Saba declared a national day to mark the contribution the martyrs of multiparty movement made to the Kenyan civilisation”. Twenty-seven years after Njoya made that remark, is it time to again reconsider his proposition?

How has Kenya faired 30 years after Moi sent the paramilitary General Service Unit (GSU) to brutally quell a people’s desire to congregate at the Kamukunji Grounds in the sprawling Eastlands area, home to the Fanonian wretched of the earth?

Going down memory lane to recapture those heady days, I spoke to Gacheke Gachihi, a founder-member of Bunge la Mwananchi (the people’s parliament), founder of the Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC) and above all, a long-time member of that urban underclass of Huruma which bore the brunt of state brutality. Gacheke is a child of the Saba Saba protests and the reformist political forces that came to define the upheavals of that time. Originally from Molo, he came to the city as a child and was swept up in the political agitation that was taking place in the urban slums.

“Although I was only 12, I was very much aware of what was happening politically”, said Gacheke. “I knew there was something wrong with the country’s politics, because I’d just come from an area that had suffered political violence and was palpable with political fears, tensions and great suspicions”. Now 42, Gacheke observes that his home area of Molo was a theatre of ethnic violence from where many people were internally displaced. “There was a lot of genocidal talk then”.

I asked Gacheke, whether the country had learned anything from the Saba Saba day and what those like him—activists who were initiated into politics by the tumultuous 1990s and the runs-ins with the state’s organs of violence—thought of the anniversary. “The anniversary comes at a time when the country is polarised by the politics of succession of 2022. If Saba Saba was agitating for increased political space in 1990, in 2020 Saba Saba should be reminding us Kenyans of the necessity to vigilantly protect the freedoms that have been gained over the years, fought through blood and great sacrifice”.

Gacheke said that in the 1990s, the youths fought hard to be heard, to exist and to hopefully break the barriers of ethnic consciousness and balkanisation. Now it looks like we’re slipping back into those bad, black days of Moi and Moism. “The youth of this country has never been able to act together, to forge a united front and capture political power and help change the trajectory of politics”. The youth caught in the vicious web of disillusionment and dispossession, nevertheless continue to be easy prey for politicians whose only agenda is to perpetuate their hold on power. It is a paradox of politics that today’s champions of political agitation were yesterday’s champions of political of status quo.

Independent researcher and political analyst Jeremiah Owiti was a political science University of Nairobi (UoN) student in 1990. “Politics then were hot and exciting. Kenyans looked forward to political changes that would meaningfully impact their lives. The people were hopeful and optimistic. Not anymore.”, said Owiti. The two biggest political protagonists today—President Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta and William Ruto who now threaten to tear the country apart—were apolitical when the first Saba Saba protests took place. Uhuru was barely 30 and Ruto barely 24 years old.

Owiti said Uhuru’s friends cut across the ethnic divide, he is a nominal catholic, while Ruto is a fervent revivalist born-again evangelical Christian. “Today, Uhuru, surrounded by Kikuyu sub-nationalists, has become a master [at] evoking tribal emotions and openly calling the Kikuyus to first mobilise on ethnic bases. Similarly, Ruto has become a master of rhetoric and subterfuge, rallying the Kalenjin people to see themselves first as Kalenjin and secondly as Kenyans”.

The behaviour of the two, who were never part of the political reform movement, completely negates the cardinal lessons of Saba Saba, said the analyst. “The very essence of the Saba Saba movement was to fight for political pluralism, not political sub-nationalism as now being espoused by Uhuru and his political-friend-now-turned-nemesis. Their retrogressive brand of politics—whichever way you look at it—is a tragic throw-back to the days of Moi-ism and Kanu-ism. The crux of the matter is that both were tutored by Moi and therefore, they do not know what it is to be a political reformer and what apolitical reforms are all about”.

The analyst said Ruto deems himself a latter-day reformer, anchoring and extolling his reform credentials on the doing, rather than on the talking: “I am a reformer because I act, I don’t talk”, Ruto likes to remind anybody who cares to listen.

Owiti said Saba Saba epitomises the struggle by Kenyans to free themselves from the shackles of the politics of balkanisation, ethnic sub-nationalism and the monolithic politics of us vs them. “Unfortunately even with the promulgation of the new constitution, which was supposed to usher in a new political dispensation, the politics that is being played by both Uhuru and Ruto, champions of ethnic jingoism, does not augur well for the epochal succession politics of 2022”.

The researcher said that, by seeking to congregate at the historical Kamukunji Grounds in 1990, the Kenyan people were saying that the constitution was the supreme law of the land and if it did not allow them to assemble, it needed to be overhauled.

The 30th Saba Saba anniversary comes at a time of great political apprehension, with the country in the throes of an economic meltdown and in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic, and the elections that will determine who will be the country’s next president just two years away. The succession politics have already split the ruling Jubilee party into two diametrically opposed camps and made President Uhuru Kenyatta one of the most unpopular presidents Kenya has ever had.

“All the changes we fought for have been reversed”, observed Kathangu. “We’d hoped for an empowered society—economically, politically and socially. We’d also hoped to have a sustainable education system that did not constantly change after every five years. We too had hoped that the land question would be fundamentally addressed. Land is still a big problem in this country and unless and until we solve it, Kenyans will not rest easy”.

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